Step one was to separate 17-year-old Barbara Blatnik’s DNA from that of the person who authorities say killed her in 1987 and dumped her physique in Cuyahoga Falls.
Investigators subsequent entered the suspect’s DNA into family tree databases, monitoring down the person’s distant cousins.
They then constructed household bushes, seemed for hyperlinks and narrowed the search to a household with Northeast Ohio ties.
This, investigators say, was the method that led to the latest arrest of James E. Zastawnik of Cleveland in Blatnik’s rape and homicide many years earlier.
His arrest was vital for Blatnik’s household and buddies who’ve waited greater than 30 years to search out out who was answerable for her demise. It additionally was necessary for forensics consultants who’re on the reducing fringe of this new know-how. The Blatnik case concerned a blended DNA pattern — a problem that has lengthy thwarted investigators.
“It is a game-changer by way of forensic identification,” mentioned Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist with the California-based Identifinders who labored on the Blatnik case.
Blatnik was final seen Dec. 19, 1987, when a buddy dropped her off in Garfield Heights round midnight. The subsequent morning, her nude physique was discovered alongside O’Neil Street, an entry highway that results in Blossom Music Middle in Cuyahoga Falls. She had been strangled and raped.
The Cuyahoga Falls Police Division introduced it was reopening the case final August in partnership with Mission Porchlight, a newly shaped nonprofit. James Renner, an Akron writer, began the group to spice up consciousness of unsolved instances and lift cash for DNA analysis. The company raised $6,000 for the Blatnik case.
Cuyahoga Falls Police Chief Jack Davis is happy and impressed by the know-how used on a case that had lengthy stumped his detectives. Davis mentioned his division can be taking a look at whether or not this know-how can be utilized in different chilly instances — and figures different departments will do the identical.
“To me, it ought to put a variety of worry into somebody who dedicated a criminal offense through the years,” he mentioned. “There’s a greater likelihood they’ll get caught.”
Zastawnik pleaded not responsible to homicide throughout his video arraignment final week in Stow Municipal Court docket. He’s being held within the Summit County Jail on a $1 million bond. His case will quickly be offered to a Summit County grand jury.
The DNA pattern within the Blatnik case got here from beneath the teenager’s fingernails.
The pattern was blended — 40% was Blatnik’s DNA and 60% her killer’s, Fitzpatrick mentioned.
Donna Zanath, Blatnik’s older sister and solely sibling, submitted a DNA pattern to 23andMe, a family tree web site, to assist investigators in separating the blended pattern.
As soon as the suspect’s DNA was remoted, Fitzpatrick entered it into DNA databases to see if she may get a Y-chromosome match that may present her the title of a suspect. This didn’t work, however she was capable of decide the male suspect was of Japanese European descent.
“If we had a suspect named Murphy, it wasn’t him,” Fitzpatrick mentioned. “The Y-DNA gave a clue. It guides us.”
Investigators then entered the pattern into GEDmatch, a family tree database, and had been capable of finding third cousins of the suspect. They constructed household bushes that began with the cousins and seemed for hyperlinks, holding in thoughts components like ethnicity, age and geography.
“It’s like a triangulation,” Fitzpatrick defined.
Investigators narrowed the search to Zastawnik and his three brothers. They then turned this data over to Falls detectives.
Detectives zeroed in on James Zastawnik, 67, who labored at a manufacturing facility close to the place Blatnik was final seen. Authorities mentioned they received a warrant to check Zastawnik’s DNA, in contrast it to the pattern and located it matched. They arrested Zastawnik Might 6.
Falls Lt. Chris Norfolk was unwilling to say if Zastawnik had beforehand been a suspect in Blatnik’s homicide.
Norfolk mentioned Zastawnik was arrested in Akron in July 1984 for exposing himself to 2 ladies. Moreover that, he wasn’t conscious of every other legal historical past for him, although detectives are nonetheless investigating.
“We’re nonetheless trying and placing issues collectively,” he mentioned.
Blatnik’s household has by no means heard of Zastawnik or seen him earlier than.
“It’s a reduction to understand it’s not somebody who was a part of our life,” Zanath mentioned. “That will have been 10 occasions worse.”
In Zastawnik’s first look in Stow court docket, he mentioned he would retain his personal legal professional. Zastawnik’s sister, nonetheless, wrote a letter to the court docket that mentioned her brother “doesn’t have the power to retain his personal counsel” and requested that he be appointed a lawyer.
If Zastawnik is indicted by a grand jury, he can be appointed an legal professional when he’s arraigned in Summit County Widespread Pleas Court docket.
Renner has corresponded on Twitter after the arrest with Zastawnik’s daughter and granddaughter, who had been shocked by the cost. He mentioned he feels for each Blatnik’s and Zastawnik’s households.
“They’re going via a disaster themselves,” he mentioned. “I can’t picture what it’s like. That household is devastated too.”
In a Might 7 Twitter publish, Zastawnik’s granddaughter mentioned: “As I’m completely happy to see the Barbara Blatnik case get solved, because the granddaughter of [Zastawnik], please watch what you say about him and our household. Justice is served the place it’s deserved, however the unneeded threats are pointless.”
Zastawnik’s relations didn’t reply to interview requests from the Beacon Journal.
Zanath marked the arrest by visiting the realm the place her sister’s physique was dumped for the primary time — and forsaking a memorial.
The Brecksville girl hung flowers and a butterfly solar catcher on a avenue signal and surrounded the signal with colourful pinwheels.
Whereas she was there, Zanath mentioned questions popped into her thoughts like, “The place did he put her physique?” and “The place did he flip round?”
Renner wonders how the lives of Blatnik and her killer intersected.
“I believe we’re going to get much more solutions as this strikes towards trial,” he mentioned.
Fitzpatrick, whose firm has now helped clear up 11 instances utilizing genealogical DNA analysis, mentioned an arrest doesn’t present “closure” to relations however can assist them to maneuver ahead with their lives.
“Not figuring out is sort of a boogeyman in your life,” she mentioned. “It’s scary. Seeing that individual is human — doesn’t have horns and doesn’t fly via the air however is a human being — you don’t should be afraid anymore.”
Zanath, 52, mentioned she is relieved by the arrest, however agrees she’ll by no means get closure. She mentioned her sister’s demise left a void in her life.
“Individuals say it will get simpler,” she mentioned. “For me, it doesn’t. On daily basis and yearly, it’s simply as onerous. When one thing occurs, it’s not occurring with my sister.”
Stephanie Warsmith will be reached at email@example.com, 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.